France - Cop21

Nuclear is not so much a dirty word at Cop21, it can barely be heard

Steam rises from the cooling towers of the Electricite de France (EDF) nuclear power station at Nogent-Sur-Seine, France.
Steam rises from the cooling towers of the Electricite de France (EDF) nuclear power station at Nogent-Sur-Seine, France. Reuters/Charles Platiau

Nuclear is keeping a low profile at the Cop21 Climate Change conference at Le Bourget just outside Paris, where political goodwill, financing and energy solutions are key issues. Yet, France’s main energy source, nuclear (about 75 percent), is clean, with very low CO2 emissions. It’s been a potential part of the energy mix for electricity production for a number of years in France and elsewhere, as fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas, are phased out and/or are exhausted. But does nuclear have a future?


To meet the increasing demand for electricity in both industrialised and developing countries, to assist development, while reducing carbon emissions, the focus of the Cop21 for now is on encouraging and investing in renewable energies (hydro, geothermal, solar, wave, wind).

The nuclear lobby from several continents is nonetheless present during the Cop21 negotiations, with a stand in the Solutions Gallery nudging shoulders with oil-producer countries' stands, and scientific institutes for gas and solar energy. for example.

Jean Pol Poncelet, the secretary general of the European Nuclear Society (ENS) says "nuclear is a very low carbon emitter and it should be part of the energy mix. The whole nuclear energy process from start to finish produces barely any CO2."

As far as greenhouse gas emissions are concerned, nuclear is a good bet. It contributes little to global warming. The ongoing 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework of the Convention on Climate Change hopes to contain the rise in global temperatures to less than 2°C as compared to pre-industrial levels, and if at all possible 2°C (1.5°C) for the Association of Small Island States.

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The other advantage of nuclear is its sheer power capacity. One plant can generate large amounts of electricity. In most parts of the world today, whether because of mobile phones or screens of some kind or back-lit advertisements, or electricity-powered, cleaner, transport, the demand for electricty is increasing.

However, the drawbacks make nuclear less attractive despite being a low CO2 option. Affordability for one. Nuclear energy may provide consumers with affordable electricity prices in developed countries, but designing and building a plant, as well as training and maintaining are costly anywhere.

France has 58 reactors. The UK, Finland and China for example, are planning to build new improved nuclear power plants. The new generation EPR (European Pressurised Reactor) at Flamanville in northern France meant to replace a first generation power plant, has so far cost 10.5bn euros. Originally due to begin operating several years ago, the plant may start operating in 2018. Its cost to date has far exceeded initial estimates.

"For us nuclear is part of the solution, but it’s not available for everybody because of the technical and technological requirements. The initial cost is high. The electricity produced is affordable," says Poncelet. This is not the inclusive message of Cop21.

Cyrille Cormier of NGO Greenpeace France disagrees. He says that compared to renewables, nuclear is far more costly.

"Every megawatt-hour produced by nuclear energy from an EPR reactor costs about 100 euros. The cost of producing the same amount of renewable energy with wind turbines and solar is already less almost everywhere in the world. For example in France, it’s already 70 euros per MW-hour for big solar farms and wind turbines.”

Cormier remarks on Youth Day at the Cop21, that nuclear is a waste burden and financial drain on future generations.

Price is not the only drawback, especially for developing countries. The raw material for nuclear energy, uranium, is in limited supply. Scientists reckon the uranium supply will run out before the end of the next century.

While not GHG producing, nuclear waste is highly polluting and radioactive. Disposal is problematic. The nuclear power plant disasters in Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986 and in Fukushima in Japan four years ago are shocking examples of the devastating results of nuclear accidents, either human or due to natural catastrophe.

The general call from the organisers and French presidency of the climate-change conference in Paris is for faster solutions to the expanding GHG problem, based on sustainable energies, which as well as being low in C02 emissions, require less investment in money, technology and therefore, time.

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